It’s not very often that a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright goes on the market. But the Cleveland area has one available – for $1.7 million dollars. The Louis Penfield House in Willoughby Hills comes with two rented farm houses, a gas well, 30 acres of woodlands, and some special responsibilities.
That story from Ideastream’s Mark Urycki...
In 1953, Louis Penfield was an art teacher for Mayfield schools when he was visiting a college buddy, who just happened to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s assistant. The famous architect walked into the room.
“My dad seized the opportunity and he said, ‘Mr. Wright, can you design a house for someone as tall as me?’ My dad was 6 foot 8.“
That’s Paul Penfield who wants to move to Europe where his children live and is ready to sell the home where he grew up.
Wright took up his father’s challenge and designed one of his so-called Usonian houses with a 12 foot ceiling and a wall of glass that looks out on 30 acres of woods and the Chagrin River.
“The glass is part of Wright’s philosophy of letting the outside be part of the inside.”
How about this long bench in here? This is very reminiscent of Falling Water.
“You will see that as part of the grammar of his architecture, in all of the Usonians. You’ll see that, you will see a central fireplace, and anything that’s horizontal he’ll emphasize it. “
As a kid, Penfield said he realized the house was special when visitors just started showing up unannounced to see it.
“It was a particularly nice venue for parties, for interaction. People who never met would become friendly –become friends with each other - as soon as they spend 15-20 minutes in the house. There was something about it.”
It’s no mansion. It was meant to be an affordable, middle class home. The Penfield House has 3 bedrooms and 1800 square feet, but it includes some of Wright’s signature features like corner windows, hidden wall sconces, clerestory windows, and heated floors. All Wright designed all the furnishings as well.
Staying True to Wright
Paul Penfield did much of the finishing work himself, adding some improvements like cherry countertops milled from trees on the property but following Wright’s instructions.
“I have put this house together in a way that I think best reflects what would have been, in the minds of my parents and Frank Lloyd Wright, as a finished house.”
You sort of feel some responsibility with this house?
“Oh absolutely. When you own this kind of - well, call it a work of art, you always feel the presence of the future and history looking over your shoulder. “
You might feel the presence of someone else too. University of Wisconsin architecture professor Mark Keane says organizations like the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy try to prevent owners from making major changes to Wright buildings.
“What they typically do when you buy a property and they say ‘OK fine we’ll give you a design covenant that says you can’t change the exterior because that’s the public art. You can modernize the kitchen, you can do what you want there. You can get the commodes up to snuff because that wasn’t important to Wright. He never designed a bathroom really.”
He didn’t design a garage either. That may be why the Penfield House has been on the market for over a year.
The Riverrock House
But there’s something extra included in the sale. Penfield’s parents commissioned a second home from Wright to be built on a bluff overlooking the river. Paul walks us out to a particular maple tree at the site.
“This tree, right here, was selected by Frank Lloyd Wright to orient the house around. And you can see it on the original blueprints.”
The new house was to be largely built with stones from the Chagrin River and Penfield remembers his dad carrying wheelbarrow loads of stones up to the site. Piles of them remain and Wright called it the Riverrock house and it was the last one he ever designed.
The blueprints arrived in the mail a couple days after the architect died. But Louis Penfield never had money to build it.
Constructing a new Frank Lloyd Wright house from old designs does happen on occasion but Penfield says this opportunity is unique.
“So it’s the only Wright house, still capable of being built, that will be authentic because we have the original land, the original client-architect relationship between the two of them, and it’s all been completely paid for. “
For Paul Penfield, the old house, the one he grew up in, still works pretty well.
“For those people who want to enjoy a heated floor in the depths of a snowstorm exactly as if they were standing on the beach at Cancun, with a fire in the fireplace, a glass of wine, the deer outside eating the corn, c’mon . . .”
If you’re not convinced, the Penfield House is available to rent for overnight stays.
Vitrual tour of the Riverrock House by Nino Samardzic